By Sarah Hyland, AIFST General Manager Industry Services

Our food consumption and eating patterns are constantly shaped by the world around us. Historically, we see food trends influenced by social change and world events, the environment, economics, medicine and technology. However, we must also acknowledge that if you are in the food business, you are also in the fashion business. So here are four trends emerging as well-articulated influences on food development, food marketing and consumer choices.

1. Transparency

It is now important for consumers to know more about their food, including where it’s made, how it’s made, who made it, and what exactly is in it. This information is appealing to consumers for safety, transparency and inspiration.

The transparency trend continues to grow and is becoming part of the grand narrative that producers, manufacturers and purveyors of food tell to consumers. If your product is grown or manufactured ethically, sustainably, safely, organically or all of the above, then a significant proportion of your target market want to know.

A possible reason for this is food safety. As the global food system becomes increasingly interconnected, food poisoning outbreaks, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or ‘mad-cow disease’, and general threats of cross-contamination are increasingly front-of-mind.

This was certainly the case in Australia in 2015 with the outbreak of Hepatitis A in connection with Nanna’s Frozen Mixed Berries. The contamination story and the processing of this product in Chinese factories reinvigorated the country-of-origin labelling debate.

2. A true story

For the consumer, there is something appealing about a product that carries a lovingly hand-crafted back story. But there are some cases where that story has been stretched to unsuspecting consumers, and the brands have brought themselves decidedly undone. The Mast Brothers, who sell ‘bean to bar’ chocolate produced in their smallscale batches in Brooklyn, New York City, is a prime example. They did not originally make their own chocolate from scratch, as they claimed to have always done.

The chocolate community suspected early on that the Mast Brothers were remelting chocolate. They noted that the bars had a taste and texture profile that closely resembled industrial chocolate – smooth, very refined and somewhat flavourless, compared with known ‘bean to bar’ formulations that exhibit distinctive tastes tied to its origin, made plain by minimal processing.

The true story trend likely still has room to run, and may even become as mainstream as gluten free. However, caution must be exercised to ensure the story remains transparent and relevant. Too much brown paper graphic design, handwritten labelling, ‘methods unchanged’ messaging and strongly retrospective narrative may start to deter consumers through a perceived lack of authenticity.

3. The Ancestral Diet - the next step in personalised nutrition?

Is there a future where people can unlock the keys to their personal physiology and design diets based on their own ancestry or genetic makeup? Nutrigenomics is the next step in personalised nutrition.

Some evolutionary biologists theorise that over the past 10,000 to 20,000 years, the novel environment changed the action of natural selection among populations in Eurasia and elsewhere. They theorise that some human populations adopted extensive
agricultural cultivation of grass species and the use of milk from other mammals for nutrition, and their ability to process
foods evolved.

But now millennia on, surely this no longer impacts our ability to process farmed foods? According to the ancestral diet principles, this depends on your ancestral heritage, or how long you have been exposed to agriculture.

For example, people from the Middle East are thought to have the best adaptation to wheat. Those from Northern Europe have the best tolerance for dairy and those from northern China have a good tolerance to wheat with all the conditions. People from southern China and Asia on the other hand have a strong tolerance for rice. No ancestry has any tolerance for highly processed food of modern times.

So what are the perceived benefits of this knowledge?

Fewer diseases

We know certain people are at a higher risk for developing diseases based on family history. Trace the family tree back a bit further, and the solution could be as simple as changing eating habits. While there is still more research to be conducted, knowledge of our genetic structure could lead to dietary recommendations long before any negative symptoms from diseases crop up.

Weight control

It is possible that reverting to a diet similar to the one your ancestors consumed could be the key to staying slim. Today’s Dietitian magazine examined obesity trends in the USA and found that African-American women experience the highest levels of obesity compared to other population groups with around four out of five being overweight. Many traditional African and Caribbean diets are largely vegetarian, and the people are far healthier. The research also found that those who maintained a diet centred on the foods that Africans typically eat didn’t develop the same issues as those who adopted a Western diet. However, there are also some obvious difficulties in attempting to eat an ancestral diet...

Availability

Though many tout the heart-healthy benefits of a Mediterranean diet, seafood isn’t necessarily an option for landlocked  areas, at least not fresh seafood. The same is true for ancient grains. While many have begun to seek out these high-fibre foods, such as farro, these are difficult to find in the supermarket. Even if people manage to get their hands on some, most are unfamiliar with the correct way to cook these unfamiliar ingredients.

Diverse ancestry

Trying to identify the optimal and most correct ancestral diet is going to be nearly impossible if, like most people, you have mixed ancestry that traces back equally to people who consumed mostly meat as well as people who ate chiefly grains and vegetables.

4. Quest for optimum health

Increasing consumer demand for natural and ‘less processed’ food and drink is forcing companies to remove artificial ingredients. Consumers are looking for natural recipes with ingredients they recognise. Companies such as Kellogg’s, General Mills, Kraft and Campbell Arnott’s are all committed to reducing anything artificial in their products – from ingredients to preservatives and packaging.

Running in parallel with this trend is the increasing value of good health, fuelling rising interest in all the things that promote it. As the USA, Europe and Japan face ageing populations, more and more people are looking for products to help them stay healthy well into their twilight years.
 
Over the past decade, sales of vitamins, minerals, and nutritional and herbal supplements have surged and many new companies have entered the space. Globally, the market is now valued at $82 billion and is destined for year-on-year growth.

Ironically, many of these supplements are highly processed into tablet and powder form, with graphics and devices that suggest a wholesome and potent ‘shot ‘of health, taken from the source and representing an altogether natural offering. It is worth exploring whether these products indeed belong in the food basket rather than down the medicine aisle.